Leelamani Paudyal is a former Nepali ambassador to China and a former chief secretary of the government. Considered as an expert on Nepal-China relataions, Nepalkhabar recently talked to Poudyal for his views on the recently-concluded 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China and re-election of Xi Jinping as the party's general secretary for a third term. Excerpts:
Xi Jinping's third term as general secretary of the Communist Party of China began last month. What does it mean for Nepal as a neighboring country?
Xi Jinping's re-election as general secretary of the CPC is obviously a matter of interest for Nepal. Since he was elected the country's president for the first time in 2013, he met with all the top political brass of Nepal. Almost half a dozen times he himself took part in talks with Nepali leaders. A host of treaties, agreements and understandings were reached between Nepal and China during Xi previous terms. In fact, he is the only top political figure of China who got so much engaged with Nepal in the last few decades or so. In the past, Chinese leaders were in contact with Nepal. They came to Nepal on different occasions, too. But this level of intense interaction never happened with the Chinese leaders. Xi paid a state visit to Nepal in October 2019. Xi deeply understands Nepal and believes that China, as a rising world power, must enhance its ties with neighbors. Hence, Xi's re-election should be understood as yet another opportunity to strengthen Nepal-China friendly ties.
I think, if Xi was replaced by someone else, the new leader would have taken enough time to understand the contemporary matters between Nepal and China. Therefore, the continuation of Xi in China is a great opportunity for Nepal.
As you are saying that Xi's tenure is an opportunity for Nepal, bilateral agreements reached during his previous tenures have not gone into implementation. As a result, the desired outcomes in bilateral relations have not been achieved and cooperation has not been able to further deepen.
In his two terms of Xi, the relationship between Nepal and China has become more dynamic. After the discussions between the top leaders of the two countries, various agreements and understandings have been reached. Nepal joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Xi's last term. It is not true that all the agreements have remained unimplemented. Some have gone into implementation despite hurdles. It is high time we expedited the implementation of agreements as agreed between the two countries in the past.
Nepal and China should work together for the implementation of those agreements during Xi's next tenure. Nepal should give due priority to the implementation of those agreements and consensus reached at the top level on various occasions. For that, we have to work in a time-bound fashion. The bilateral mechanisms established between the two countries should be re-activated. A special mechanism can be established to ensure the smooth implementation of past deals. At the same time, Nepal should assure that it is mindful of China's security interests.
There is an analysis that the global competition between China and the US will intensify during Xi's term this time. If the strategic and geopolitical conflict between the two intensifies, what will be its impact on smaller countries like Nepal? There is also an understanding that since China will be more aggressive in matters related to its national and external security, will it bring any problem for Nepal?
Both of our neighbors China and India have their own security interests in Nepal. As a neighbor, we have to be mindful about their security interests. Nepal should not give an opportunity to any third party including the United States to act against China and its core security interests. Letting big powers play in Nepal against China will pose a challenge for Nepal itself. When there is a tension between superpowers, it makes a global impact. We can feel that now. In Nepal, the impact of the current rift between two powers will be several times greater than the impact of the Cold War after the Second World War. One of the main reasons for that is that the rising world power China is in our neighborhood and another superpower and its allies are encircling China. Hence, they will make every effort to use Nepal against China.
During the Cold War, none of the emerging powers were in our neighborhood. But the intensity with which the conflict between the superpower nations affects it now was not there then. Some people compare the current situation of Nepal in matters related to foreign policy with that of taken by late King Mahendra in the 1960s. They believe that King Mahendra's path should be followed even now. Mahendra's policy of non-alignment is equally relevant even today.
When there is fierce rivalry between the two big powers, Nepal will face its impact. Hence, our leadership should be wise enough to deal with such situation. The political leadership should not let third countries to play in the security interests of both our neighbors. For that, political leadership requires a firm determination. Another thing, Nepal should stay neutral on the matters of disputes between China and India. It should not take side at all while developing friendly with both countries. It is easier said than done.
In your view, what will be Xi's focus this time?
Chinese President Xi's this term is likely to focus on more proactively implementing China's peaceful rise, taking into account the lessons learned from his past tenures. In the matter of foreign relations, the policy he takes this time will be more progressive. We can easily understand that. There is no need to worry about China's proactive and assertive approach in matters related to security and foreign affairs. Being a neighbor, Nepal will not have to face any problem from China until we are mindful of China's security concerns.
But there are apprehensions that the US-China contention will negative impact on Nepal.
If we allow third countries to act in genuine security interests of our neighbors, we can't rule out the possibility of such threat. But if we are sensitive to their security interests, there will be no such danger. What I have been saying is that relations with two neighboring countries China and India are indispensable, while the relation with third country is relations of our choice. Nepal should adopt this principle. If we do that we should not face any threat due to the great power rivalry.
How can we increase economic cooperation with China and reap benefits during Xi's present term?There are many opportunities for us to reap benefit from China's economic rise. In order to overcome the economic crisis triggered by the Ukraine-Russia conflict, a country like us needs help from its neighbors like China. The spillover effect of Ukraine crisis has already been seen in our country. The crisis is hitting us in areas such as tourism, foreign investment.
Prices of all commodities, including food, have been hiked. The price of fuel has gone up, which has made development and construction work more expensive. The relationship with China is important for us to face all these effects. I see there are enough places to get help from China to increase domestic production.
China's cooperation, harmony and friendship to us will be more important in the coming days in diversifying our trade. Another thing is that there needs to be a common consensus among the top political brass about how to get support from China. I mean a firm consensus is needed at the political level on which areas we get assistance from China and what are our priority areas for economic development.
If China, during Xi's third term, intervenes in Nepal's internal political issues, will India and western powers become further assertive thereby weakening Nepal's internal decision-making capacity?
It is widely believed that China respects the sovereignty and geographical integrity of Nepal. There is people's perception that China does not interfere in Nepal's internal affairs. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China has never interfered. The Chinese side must re-assure Nepal that they will not interfere in Nepal's internal issues in the coming days too. On the other hand, the political parties of Nepal must also be careful. A red-line should be drawn between our parties and the Chinese Communist Party whether it is only a fraternal ties or something else.
Well, even before 1950s, southern neighbor India and western countries have been directly involved in Nepal's political upheavals. Their high-handedness prevailed over Nepal's political changes in recent decades. India and western intelligence agencies have been overtly and covertly engaged in domestic politics and ultimately serving their own geo-political motto. And they are the ones who are seeing CPC's engagement with Nepali political parties in recent years as China's interference. Isn't it an irony? It is also unfortunate that the political parties of Nepal continued to legitimize the naked interference of India and the West. Our political parties and so-called pro-western scholars are also to be blamed for this. Because, they created the environment for the intervention of the west and the south.
What should Nepal's political actors do to resist the external interference?
We must strongly oppose any interference in Nepal's internal affairs, be it by India or the west or anyone else. Perhaps the western countries have influenced Nepal's intellectuals or opinion makers in multiple ways and misled the people through them. Chinese friends can have fraternal relations with Nepali parties, but they should understand the boundary line where they seem to be interfering in the internal politics of Nepal. On that basis, a kind of red line should be drawn by both sides.
Why people started talking about China's alleged interference in Nepal?
In the past, China was not a strong power. But today China is powerful and there is consistent effort to prevent China from rising. Hence, China is under intense pressure. If India and west continue to interfere in Nepal's domestic polity directly and indirectly, China, too, could be dragged forcefully. There should not be an invited interference. We have to adopt a policy of non-alignment to resist external interference. Undue external interference will bring hurdles to our socio-economic development.
Coming back to the main issue, how the present term of Xi will be different from the previous one?
The new core team of the CPC understands Xi's thoughts and works in line with the spirit of Xi. I think Xi's fresh team is even stronger than before. Xi will get a good support from his party colleagues in executing his policies. Another thing is that Xi brought several foreign policy initiatives including the BRI in his last term. Lately two initiatives have come up namely Global Security Initiative (GDI) and Global Development Initiative (GSI). Xi seems to be determined to push these initiatives across the globe.
What will be the impact of Xi's neighborhood policy, especially in South Asia, in coming days?
Xi seems to be committed to improve relations with India. Because, Xi took the initiative to repair ties with India in his last term. He invited Modi for Wuhan Summit in 2018 and paid a return visit to India to further nurture ties with Modi. The Wuhan summit with India was the pinnacle of improved relations. However, during Xi's last tenure, the two countries locked horns over Doklam and Galwan. Relations with India have not yet normalized.
China-India relations also affect China-South Asia relations. In other words, the relationship between India and China affects all South Asian countries including Nepal. India has traditional economic, socio-cultural relations with all countries of South Asia. The deterioration of relations between China and India will have a negative impact on the relations of both countries with Nepal. Nepal should not be dragged into the dispute between them. If there is a conflict between them, we should tell them frantly that we are ready even to mediate the dialogue.
The deterioration of the relationship between India and China will affect us more than the deterioration of US-China relations, because we share border and Nepali citizens are in the Indian army. Good ties between China and India is also in our interests.